On the evening of April 16, ESPN reporter Britt McHenry earned a week-long workplace suspension after a video surfaced in which she repeatedly insulted a towing company employee. This has nothing to do with Minor League Baseball.
Or does it?
Anyone who follows the world of Minor League promotions knows that teams -- or at least certain teams -- will jump at any opportunity to garner attention via an irreverent response to a controversial (but not too controversial) current news item. The Britt McHenry "scandal" certainly fit the bill, providing the requisite dose of schadenfreude while initiating a larger discussion regarding the issues of bullying and class entitlement.
Enter the Brevard County Manatees, Class A Advanced affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers. On Friday, April 17, the day after the Britt McHenry video went viral, the Manatees extended an invitation to McHenry to serve as the team's "field-side reporter" at Space Coast Stadium during the week in which she was suspended by ESPN. Additionally, the team asked her to deliver a speech on the "importance of anti-bullying" to the approximately 1,000 local students who would be attending April 22's "Education Day" game. Though a local tie-in isn't mandatory when it comes to a promotion of this nature, the Manatees had one. McHenry attended nearby Satellite High School in Satellite Beach, where she was a star athlete.
The Manatees' invitation quickly drew interest from the media, first locally (newspaper Florida Today) and then nationally. As it just so happened, I was in attendance during April 17's Manatees game at Space Coast Stadium and able to witness the surreal workplace disconnect that can result when a click-baiting Minor League promotion achieves its intended result. As general manager Kyle Smith and director of community relations Jennifer Garcia engaged in their myriad gameday tasks -- everything from handling fan questions and complaints to coordinating between-innings promos to, in Smith's case, doing the "Carlton Dance" during the dragging of the infield -- they would periodically duck into (comparatively) quiet ballpark areas to field calls from the media. By the end of the day, the Manatees' invite had garnered interest from national outlets -- perhaps most notably online celebrity gossip powerhouse TMZ -- who would ordinarily have no interest in the promotional efforts of a Florida State League baseball franchise.
• A peek at Ben's trip to Brevard County in photos, vines »
After the game, I finally had the chance to catch up with Smith in order to ask him how this came about and, more pertinently, "Why?" He said that during that afternoon's staff meeting, which take place prior to all games, the McHenry controversy was brought up as a topic of conversation.
"I can't remember who asked 'Should we do something with this?' but whenever somebody asks that at a staff meeting, immediately the creative juices start flowing," said Smith. "Everybody stops talking and starts thinking, 'OK, could there be a tie-in?'"
Smith has experience with this sort of thing, such as in 2010 when the Manatees stopped referring to batting practice as "BP" in response to the damage done by the BP oil spill. ("Hitting rehearsal" was temporarily adopted as the accepted terminology.) More recently, the team invited the good Samaritans involved in an emergency manatee rescue effort to be honored as part of the Manatees' Opening Night festivities. The overriding impulse seems to be "If you see an opportunity, take it."
"The main thing is, how do you find something that betters the community out of this?" said Smith. "And so we came up with this idea to invite Ms. McHenry to the ballpark ... to talk about her actions, take some accountability for it and also explain why it's wrong. It could be kind of powerful, so that's we're hoping to accomplish.
"Did I expect TMZ or E! News to talk about it? No. No chance. I guess maybe naively, because obviously it was a big deal today. ... The reactions came pretty quick, and when the interview calls started coming in within the hour, I knew this is something that could be a big deal and hopefully not polarizing."
But, perhaps inevitably, it was polarizing. The Facebook reaction to the Manatees' invitation was decidedly negative, fueled at least in part by the erroneous perception that McHenry had already accepted and would in fact be attending a game at Space Coast Stadium. (In reality, the Manatees hadn't heard from McHenry and likely weren't expecting to.)
"This is not a decision I think I would support nor do I feel my children need a lesson in anti-bullying from someone on a PR tour to rebuild her image. I'm very disappointed in the club's decision," wrote Facebook fan Marybeth Gambino Corrigan, in a Facebook comment that received more likes (73) than the Manatees' post announcing the promotion.
Given that fans such as Corrigan are more likely to be attending games than some random visitor to the TMZ website, was this promotional stunt even worth it? Why do it in the first place?
Smith, rather than dive into a dissection of the pros and cons of the Manatees' latest attention-garnering maneuver, had a ready response.
"The answer that pops into my head is 'Because we can,'" he said. "I think sometimes Minor League Baseball likes doing things that Major League Baseball can't, whether you consider it a rivalry or not. The guys I talked with from Major League teams today were just like, 'Wow, that's a good idea. We could never do that.' ... Major League Baseball is on TV all the time and gets all the pub, but Minor League Baseball can do things that are a little off-the-wall. I think that's a big part of it. It gives us a chance to be in the spotlight."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.